Fr. Scott A. Haynes
When Mary and Joseph presented the Christ Child in the Temple to the old man Simeon, Simeon prophesied that Christ was to be the “Light to the Gentiles.” As he was making this prophecy, the three magi were already on the march to Bethlehem.
The word “magi” comes from the Greek magos meaning “one of a learned and priestly class.” The Persian word used to describe these men in their society was magush meaning “magician.” There are at least 85 paintings of the coming of the magi in the Roman catacombs. They not only show the believer’s adoration of Christ, but they remind us that after the Jewish shepherds, these Gentiles were the first people to recognize who Jesus was and to worship Him as the Messiah. The birth of Jesus was the most important event in history according to the Christians. The Roman Christians (mostly Gentile) identified with the Arabian magi and honored them in their necropolises.
Painting of coming of magi in catacomb of Priscilla on Via Salaria in Rome
In the ancient Middle Eastern world these magi were trusted advisors to kings, were learned men proficient in the knowledge of mathematical calculations, astronomy, medicine, astrology, alchemy, dream interpretation and history as well as practitioners of magic and paranormal arts. As far back as 604 BC King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had a troubling dream and “summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed.” (Daniel 2:2) His wise men, his magi, could not interpret the dream. Daniel was able to ascertain the meaning and Nebuchadnezzar made him his Prime Minister. (Daniel 2:46-49)
At Christ’s birth we see the magi, the scientists of the East. At Christ’s death we see the Greeks, the philosophers of the West. The Psalmist had foretold that the kings of the East would come to do homage to Emmanuel. Following a star, they came to Jerusalem to ask Herod where the King had been born.
Notice it was a star that led them. God spoke to these pagan Gentiles through nature and through the philosophers. Though they were astrologers, the slight vestige of truth in their knowledge of the stars led them to the Star out of Jacob, just as the Greeks of Athens, to whom St. Paul would preach, came to desire the “Unknown God” through their philosophy.
Magi in Marcus and Marcellinus Catacomb (300’s AD).
Though coming from a land that worshiped stars, they surrendered that religion as they fell down and worshiped the Christ Child who made the stars. The Gentiles in fulfillment of the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah “came to Him from the ends of the earth.”
The Star of Bethlehem, which disappeared during the interrogation of Herod, reappeared and stood over the place where Christ was born. When the magi came from the East bringing gifts for the King of Kings, Herod the Great knew that the time had come for the birth of the King of Israel, but like all carnal-minded men, he lacked a spiritual sense and so he believed that this King of the Jews who came wearing a heavenly crown would steal away his own tinsel crown.
Today let us follow the three magi to the manger. Let us lay down our own tinsel crowns. Whatever we have we lay before that Infant King of Bethlehem. Whatever we have accomplished we give to Him. Whatever we possess we give to Him. This Epiphany, let us give three gifts to the Christ Child – our minds to be enlightened, our bodies for His service and our souls to be saved.